Jonah Raskin : Red Bard: ‘The Poems of Mao Zedong’

If I had to compare Mao to an American I’d say he was akin to Whitman, though I’d add that Whitman’s lines are longer, that the rhythms feel different and the voices aren’t the same. Mao is never as tender or as sexual or as democratic as Walt. Still, like Walt, Mao sings a song of himself.

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / January 18, 2008

The Poems of Mao Zedong
Translations, Introduction, and Notes by Willis Barnstone
University of California Press.168 pages; $24.95

“Exterminate the brutes!,” Mr. Kurtz exclaims in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s hair-raising novella about “ethnic cleansing” in the Belgian Congo that inspired Francis Ford Coppola to make Apocalypse Now, his Technicolor extravaganza about the killing fields in Vietnam. The fictional Mr. Kurtz was ahead of the tidal wave of genocide that swept around the world; the 20th century’s real warlords, dictators and megalomaniacs in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, China, and beyond followed in his bloody footsteps and piled up the corpses of their enemies. Like him, the agents of mass murder often started out as cultured Europeans.

Take, for example, the Bosnian Radovan Karadzic. Captured after years as a fugitive and in hiding, and a forthcoming defendant in The Hague for crimes against humanity, Karadzic is a published poet and the author of a charming book for children. He also worked as a humanistic therapist. The contradictions are mind-boggling, and they are even more so in the case of Mao Zedong, the chairman, and once absolute dictator of the Peoples’ Republic of China. A man of prodigious contradictions — his most influential essay is entitled “On Contradiction” — Mao knew volumes about the subject. If he wanted to see his own he could not have found a better place to look then in his poetry, perhaps the one place in the world that would not allow him to lie about himself.

What are we to think of Chairman Mao — a fellow who makes Mr. Kurtz seem almost tame — and what of his poems which have been newly translated by Willis Barnstone? At the Poetry Foundation they were asking much the same question about Mao the poet. On their web site you can read the views of Rachel Aviv. “His poetry can hardly be seen as a weapon for national liberation,” Aviv writes, oddly unaware that Mao’s poems were effective propaganda for the masses. In The Washington Post J. D. O’Hara called Mao’s poems “political documents,” but added, “it is as literature that they should be considered.” Separating the political from the literary, however, just isn’t possible in Mao’s work. “We woke a million workers and peasants,” he wrote boastfully in the 1931 poem “First Siege,” and though all his lines aren’t as explicit about the power of the Chinese revolution many of them are.

Born into a peasant family in 1893, Mao grew up loving the classics of Chinese literature and at times he could be enlightened about culture. “Questions of right and wrong in the arts and sciences should be settled through free discussion in artistic and scientific circles,” he wrote. “They should not be settled in summary fashion.” But he ruled tyrannically in cultural as in economic matters, and insisted that artists serve the class interests of peasants and proletarians, even as he promoted his own career and created a cult of his all-powerful personality. American writers and artists played a decisive role in aggrandizing that immense personality and making him look respectable. Edgar Snow, the Missouri-born reporter, gave Mao a big boost in his classic of revolution, Red Star Over China (1937), and in the 1960s Andy Warhol turned Mao into a global icon. Frederic Tuten wrote a brilliant Dadaesque novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, published in 1971. John Updike reviewed it favorably in The New Yorker and Susan Sontag, called it “a violently hilarious book.”

Perhaps all of us who were alive then colluded in making the myth of Mao. “I wrote The Adventures of Mao at a most political time,” Tuten would explain. “China was near, its revolution still fresh and seemingly uncorrupted.” Tuten’s contemporaries saw the Chinese revolution as incorruptible even as they browbeat one another with quotations from The Little Red Book. I never went that far though I caught the Mao bug, and joined the Cultural Revolution that spread from Beijing to Paris, and beyond. Finally, the Beatles interjected a necessary note of sanity. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow,” they sang in “Revolution.” Oddly enough, Mao made it big with President Richard M. Nixon, the arch anti-communist who visited China in 1972 and made a big production of reciting Mao’s poetry to Mao himself. Then, he and Zhou Enlai discussed the meaning of the poems — as though they were two diligent students and Mao their master.

When Mao died at 83, the world began a thoroughgoing reappraisal of his life. In book after book — in both compelling memoirs and comprehensive histories — the mighty Mao was redefined as an egomaniac. Mao: The Untold Story (2005), co-authored by Jon Halliday, and Jung Chang — a former Red Guard who won international acclaim for The Wild Swans – provides a shocking account of his cultural and political crimes. “Mao cornered the book market by forcing the entire population to buy his own works, while preventing the vast majority of writers from being published,” the authors write.

In his introduction to The Poems of Mao Zedong Willis Barnstone says nothing about the millions Mao made from his books, and nothing about his crimes, sticking mostly to literary matters. “He was a major poet, an original master,” Barnstone says. Mao had a more modest view — perhaps falsely modest — of his poetry, which he dismissed as “scribbles.” Nevertheless, he allowed them to be printed when he was 65. I wish that Barnstone had said more about Mao the dictator than what he does say — that he created a “new dynasty.” When I interviewed him he was refreshingly candid. “I have never ceased thinking what a bastard Mao was!,” Barnstone said. “Almost everything he did was a failure and millions of people died of starvation because of him. He was a horror for China. I have thought that perhaps some of the same energy that went into his horrendous politics went into his beautiful poetry.”

Barnstone is the most fitting American to bring Mao’s work to Americans now, as China emerges as a world power. A life long teacher, writer, poet, scholar of Borges and Sappho, and gifted translator, he has written insightfully about translating in The Poetics of Translation. Barnstone has a keen poetic imagination, and, as Stephen Kessler observes in “What Does it Take to Translate Poetry, collected in Moving Targets, “it is through imagination (or faithful re-imagining) that the greatest translations are created.” In “Forgery & Possession” Kessler also observes that for a good translation, “Familiarity with the culture and the history of the originally is also vitally useful.” Barnstone is an old China hand. He lived in China during the Cultural Revolution — Zhou Enlai invited him — and in the 1980s he taught literature in Beijing. He’s old enough — 80 — and wise enough — he’s lived through the horrors of the twentieth century — to know that if we only read poets who were perfect human beings and didn’t endorse one brutal system or another, we’d read precious few poets.

Thirty-six poems are here, some as brief as three lines, others much longer. About half the poems were written after Mao and the Communists came to power. All are in Chinese and English, and on matching pages. Barnstone includes examples of Mao’s calligraphy, footnotes to each poem, and a note on translation. “Chinese poetry depends very much on images and images translate more readily and with less loss than other poetic devices,” he writes. In a note on versification, he adds that Mao took his models mainly from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1127) poets, which shows how far back the poetry tradition goes in China, where writing poetry was expected of emperors.

A young reader coming upon this work for the first time might not connect Mao the poet to Mao the dictator. As Barnstone pointed out during our interview, some of Mao’s best poems are intensely personal, as in “The Gods” which is for his wife and sister who were beheaded in 1930 by Mao’s opponents – the Chinese Nationalists. The poem ends with a powerful image – “Tears fly down from a great upturned bowl of rice” – that exposes his vulnerability and the immensity of his loss. Many of the poems are overtly political, even propagandistic and it would be hard to read them and not think of war and revolution. “The Long March” begins “The Red Army is not afraid of hardship,” and seems to have been written to inspire the troops. “Militia Women” is directed at the “Daughters of China” and means to bring them into the fold of revolution. “Tingzhou to Changsha” is covertly political; “soldiers of heaven” tie up and defeat “the whale.” The symbolism is explicitly political.

Mao enjoyed the beauty of nature all through the hardships of the Long March. War did not curtail his aesthetic appreciation of flowers, snow, horses, geese, sky, rivers, and the moon. The mountains are almost always pleasing to his eye as in “Snow,” his most popular poem, in which he writes, “Mountains dance like silver snakes.” In “To Guo Moruo,” the last poem in the volume, Mao seems to reflect on the vanity of the human will to conquer: “On our small planet/ a few houseflies bang on the walls. They buzz, moan, moon, and ants climb the locust tree/ and brag about their vast dominion.” Did he have a kind of epiphany and realize the futility of ruling absolutely? “To Guo Moruo” suggests that he did.

Unlike the poems of the Bosnian nationalist warlord Radovan Karadzic, Mao’s poems do not reveal an obsession with violence, though he romanticizes weapons in the image of a “forest of rifles.” Karadzic’s poems are cultish and diabolical; “I am the deity of the dark cosmic space,” he boasts. Mao’s work reminds me of the poems that other Asian Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, who wrote while imprisoned in 1942, and that were published under the title Prison Diary. Ho disguised his revolutionary views lest his jailors confiscate his work and pile additional punishment on him. “When the prison doors are open, the real dragon will fly out,” he wrote in what is his best-known and most frequently quoted line.

If I had to compare Mao to an American I’d say he was akin to Whitman, though I’d add that Whitman’s lines are longer, that the rhythms feel different and the voices aren’t the same. Mao is never as tender or as sexual or as democratic as Walt. Still, like Walt, Mao sings a song of himself. There’s an all-powerful “I” as well as an all-seeing eye, and the “I” can be wistful and sad as in “I see the passing, the dying of the vague dream.” In “Swimming” Mao writes, “I taste a Wuchang fish in the surf/ and swim across the Yangzi River.” He identifies himself with China itself in much the same way that Whitman identified himself with America, and that seems fitting. Twentieth century China was like 19th-century America: a country developing economically at a furious pace, with huge social dislocation, and the unleashing of immense creative as well as destructive forces, all of which were embodied in Mao himself. I don’t mean to excuse the violence in America during our Civil War and industrial revolution, or the violence in China during its Civil War and cultural revolution. By making the comparison I hope to illuminate the Chinese experience, and make it seem less exotic, foreign, and yes, even less Oriental. If Mao’s poems express universal feelings, so, too, the Chinese have pushed ahead for all of humanity in their exuberant and misguided revolution. If they fail disastrously we’ll all fail.

In Mao: The Unknown Story, Halliday and Chang describe Mao as a megalomaniac aiming to destroy Chinese culture. Barnstone shows him as a poet who borrowed from and helped to preserve the old China, even as he aimed to overturn it and start anew. The Beatles rightly warned us against the hagiography of Mao, but I’d like to think that they’d want to read him now. They might even wave Barnstone’s compact, handsome volume above their heads. It’s that good!

[Jonah Raskin is a prominent author, poet, educator and political activist. His most recent book is The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution.]

Find The Poems of Mao Zedong, by Zedong Mao, translated by Willis Barnstone, on

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jonah Raskin : Red Bard: ‘The Poems of Mao Zedong’

  1. Anonymous says:

    The RagBlog has become a virtual classroom, in which no adult need be left behind – a resource for a liberal education with no tuition, no grades, no essays, no tests. Please, give us more from professor Raskin!

  2. I’m the great great great niece of Ralph Waldo Emerson; as well, Louisa Mae Alcott is also in my family tree.

    The other day a friend asked me about my great great grandmother and her involvement in Women’s Sufferage. From the many journals of all these people who (some) were given to me as part of my ‘inheritance’ to keep and pass down, I wrote her this – to me, this is poetry:

    Just watched LITTLE WOMEN – rarely do I watch television unless it’s a ‘classic’ or ‘real’ story. My grandmother Helen MacLennan Rambow was published a number of times; she was one of 4 daughters – her grandmother was May Stocking Knaggs; part of the small group who headed up the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association (she was president for 4 years). The well-known other 3 were Carrie Chapman Catt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I’d like to share from one of the original documents my great great grandmother May wrote:

    The woman’s cause is man’s; they rise and sink together;
    Dwarfed or god-like, bond or free….
    If she be small, slight-natured, miserable, how shall men grow?
    ….as far as in us lies, we then and there, will serve them both in aiding her.
    We’ll clear away the parasitic forms that seem to keep her up, but also drag her down.
    We’ll leave her space to burgeon out of all within her; let her make herself her own – to give or keep; to live and learn, and be all that not harms distinctive womanhood.

    Yet in the long years, like her, must they grow….the man be more of a woman; she of man as he gains in sweetness and in moral height while she gains in mental breadth; not failing in child-ward care.

    ‘Til at the last she set herself to man; like perfect music unto noble words, and
    So these twain upon the skirts of time
    Sit side by side – full summed in all their powers….

    Then comes the statelier Eden back to man; then reign the world’s great bridals – chaste – and calm; then springs the crowning race of humankind – may these things be soon.

    Dated March 6, 1887 – Bay City, Michigan.

    That was written 122 years ago come March 6; it seems the plight of equality and real freedom has been a ‘constant’…….

    Oh yes, a few of the PRESS NOTICES about her:

    Mrs. May Stocking Knaggs of Bay City, chairman of the Press Committee for the Woman’s Convention (National Woman’s Relief Corps), is a New York woman of New England descent; resident for the last 20 years in Michigan. She is an educator; writer, artist, orator and charming woman. She is a logical and convincing speaker; she has been of great service in awakening popular and legislative thought on the subject of equal suffrage, – this is from the DETROIT FREE PRESS.

    Mrs. May S. Knaggs of Bay City, Michigan, was a guest of the convention and was presented by Miss Susan B. Anthony. Mrs. Knaggs is a pleasing woman; a gifted and fluent speaker. – this is from the AUBURN, NEW YORK BULLETIN.

    The lecture given in the Army Post room last Saturday evening, by Mrs. May Stocking Knaggs, on the subject of Political Equality, was the finest woman suffrage lecture we ever listened to in any place. It is clear; it has calm reasoning – it’s just and careful with profound statements, and earnest as well as kindly in spirit. The speech was delivered in a dignified manner which can not be too highly commended.

    The speaker has a very magnetic personality; every point she made bristled with argument, fact, and statistics – the whole lecture was pervaded with a sweet, kindly spirit toward men. – this is from THE SUFFOLK WEEKLY TIMES, GREENPORT, NEW YORK

    I’ll close with a poem I wrote for my grandma that got her high approval:

    America – More than Profiles on a Mountain – February 24, 1984
    Diane Stirling

    United in states; above the ‘common herd’
    Benevolent guidance; we should shepherd by
    Deed and word

    America should fire our dreams
    And be guided by our flag’s shining stars
    Bring honorable peace to our planet
    Ending and outwitting those who profit and prevail
    From death and unjust wars!

    Listen now; I present a fact because
    Power is in love – it should be our nation’s pact
    This strength in union that can save us all
    Should bind us strongly; else ‘divided we fall’….

    Citizens, our choice is to take up the rod
    Walk towards freedom; peace in brother-hood
    And make none or nothing ‘god’ – just simply ‘good’.

    A pledge of equality – it’s long past time….
    Morality commands us to do it; a command not sublime
    A tower of hope that will symbolize power
    …please, let’s not wait until the final hour…

    I’m glad you’ve picked a few topics about poetry and the goodness and artistry of those in this world – it makes reading your blog much more pleasant and balanced.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *